Through the lens of science: horse welfare at the human-horse interface

Senast ändrad: 16 december 2022

Elke Hartmann.

Equitation Science (ES) is not a method. It is a scientific approach to help us getting it right for horses. Not to be right. ES promotes an objective and ethical approach to the understanding of the welfare of horses in their interactions with humans during training, competition or therapy. It combines equine ethology, psychology and other scientific disciplines such as veterinary science to measure and explain the underlying mechanisms that underpin human-horse interactions. 

During this presentation, I will invite you to join me on my personal and professional journey of learning about horses and bridging evidence based knowledge (based on robust scientific data) with equestrian practice. 

It all began with investigating the management of horses kept in groups and consequences for horse welfare and human safety. Some of the study highlights included recommendations of how to introduce unfamiliar horses to each other (e.g. through pre-exposure in boxes), how to safely train naïve young horses to leave their mates behind and to consider the provision of summer shelter for horses kept on pasture. Furthermore, research findings suggest that concerns about the risk of severe injuries associated with keeping horses in groups are probably overestimated and clearly outweigh the benefits of group housing horses (i.e. social contact with conspecifics, development of social competence, decrease of unwanted behaviours and improved human-horse relationship). 

Following on from this, my research focused on studying horse-human relationships from the horse’s perspective. Horses are good candidates to ask questions about bonding and attachment due to their social nature, artificial selection for trainability and their dependence on human care. Yet, more scientific insight is needed to disentangle the quality of the horse-human relationship. So far, results could not provide conclusive evidence that horse-human relationships constitute an attachment as has been shown in dog-human relationships. Nevertheless, the studied horses showed more signs of stress during separation from both their owner and a stranger and they sought more contact to humans during reunion, which are signs of attachment like behaviours. Moving on the avenue of disentangling the horsehuman relationship, is has been widely agreed upon that playing a dominant role and becoming your horse’s leader to achieve better training results does not coincide with ES. Rather, knowledge of horses’ natural behaviour (ethology) and learning capacities are more reliable in explaining training outcomes and, therefore, in safeguarding horse welfare and human safety. 

Moreover, if we really want to improve the quality of life of horses, then we should recognise their emotional responses to human interventions because these are closely linked to the horses’ immediate reactions, long-term mood and overall performance. Finding valid indicators of how horses anticipate and express their emotional states during human interventions is one of my current research objective besides studying other aspects of horse-human interactions (e.g. evaluating the magnitude of rein tension applied through the reins in Standardbred trotters driven on the home- as compared to performance on a public race track; encouraging and supporting riding school teachers and their pupils to implement an evidence based approach to the handling and training of horses). My overall aim with current and future ES research is to promote interpretations of horse behaviour and welfare that are based on robust scientific data rather than anthropocentric beliefs that risk inappropriate management and training practices.